Although the Capitals’ magic number to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference is now one -- whether a point gained by Washington or a point that the Flyers fail to obtain -- their opponent is still to be determined.
Montreal, Buffalo and the New York Rangers are each separated by a point in sixth, seventh and eighth place, respectively, so the standings could certainly shift. We’ll take a look at each of those teams and how they stack up with the Capitals heading into the final few games of the NHL regular season.
Record: 43-30-7, 93 points
Current seed: Sixth
Remaining schedule: 4/7 at Senators; 4/9 at Maple Leafs.
Record vs. Capitals this season: 1-3-0
The Canadiens have sputtered more than surged recently, going 7-7-0 since Mar. 8, but they have won three of their last four outings in order to keep pace in the playoff race and clinch a postseason berth.
Goaltender Carey Price has anchored Montreal all season in one of the more remarkable personal comebacks for an individual. The 23-year-old proved that he can be relied upon after a shaky 2009-10 where he was pulled in favor of Jaroslav Halak in the postseason.
With the reliance upon Price comes the risk of fatigue for the all-star netminder, though. The defense was suspect in March and often placed extra pressure on Price, who is expected to get Thursday’s game against Ottawa off, to keep the Canadiens afloat.
While it has been an inconsistent leadup to the postseason for Montreal, things could be evening out, beginning with the top line. The Canadiens, who average only 2.59 goals per game, are in desperate need of offense and the key to finding it likely lies in the trio of Tomas Plekanec, Michael Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn. Over the past two games, they’ve contributed to three of Montreal’s last five goals.
Montreal likely won’t overload the scoreboard on most nights but if it can establish a consistent transition game and make the most of its opportunities that may be all the offense it needs should the defense provide Price with adequate support.
Against the Capitals: Washington put together two of its most diligent performances against Montreal as bookends on a recent stretch of six consecutive road games. The Capitals smothered the Canadiens for wins on Mar. 15 and 26 at Centre Bell, showing a thorough commitment by each player to the defensive priorities they’ve worked on perfecting for the past three months. Those victories also came without captain Alex Ovechkin in the lineup.
Montreal is not the same team that knocked the Capitals out in seven games in the first round of the playoffs a year ago, but that memory would certainly give weighty intrigue to another matchup between the two teams. Not to mention for a team that has talked about finding redemption in this year’s playoffs, Washington couldn’t find a more direct route to that than one through Montreal.
From the beat writer: Pat Hickey from the Montreal Gazette gives his take on what the biggest question is for the Sabres as they head into the playoffs.
The biggest question facing the Canadiens is: Can Carey Price be Jaroslav Halak? The team’s playoff run last season was fueled by an incredible run by Halak. He led the Canadiens to seven-game series wins against Washington and Pittsburgh before running out of gas. He had a 9-9 record with 2.55 GAA and a ,.923 save percentage. He faced an average of 31 shots a game but there were several games where he saw more than 40 shots.
Halak has since noted that he didn’t feel any pressure because he was the backup to Price for most of the season but Price has been the man this season. He made his 71st appearance of the season Tuesday and has been among the league leaders in every goaltending category this season. The big concern is whether he can handle the playoff pressure — Price is 5-11 in NHL playoffs and 0-5 the past two seasons but he has worked harder this year and is more mature.